Juvenile facility called better for suspects

State law requiring adult crimes get adult jail was changed in 2010

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Five years ago Alex Hribal almost certainly would have gone straight to an adult jail following his arrest on charges that he stabbed more than 20 people inside Franklin Regional Senior High School.

But changes in state law, brought about after another high-profile case in Western Pennsylvania, have made it easier -- and sometimes preferable -- to house inside juvenile detention centers teenagers charged with homicide or attempted homicide.

Alex, 16, was arraigned Wednesday night after Westmoreland County officials charged him as an adult with attempted homicide, aggravated assault and possessing a prohibited weapon on school property. District Judge Charles Conway ordered him to be held without bail in Westmoreland County's juvenile detention center, and sheriff's deputies drove him to the facility about 25 minutes away from his home.

"We have never in the history of the facility had a case getting this type of attention," said executive director Rich Gordon.

The center has two sections -- for children charged with crimes and for children receiving assistance through the county's children and families program. It can hold 12 children who have been charged with crimes, and six of those beds were filled Friday morning, Mr. Gordon said.

Within the section for children charged with crimes, there are no segregated areas for children charged with violent crimes or high-profile crimes. The facility has housed children charged with homicide and attempted homicide before, but those cases are rare, Mr. Gordon said.

"Everybody is together," he said.

The children wake up between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. and get ready for school classes. They go to bed around 9 p.m. and take their meals and recreation together, Mr. Gordon said.

Visitation is allowed twice a week, generally on weekends, and attorneys come and go throughout the week as they meet with their clients. A doctor works there in case someone needs mental or physical treatment, Mr. Gordon said.

"We do encourage the kids not to talk about their cases, not to talk about their charges," Mr. Gordon said. Alex's case, he said, "is definitely a first, especially with all the scrutiny ... and his charges."

Standing about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing about 110 pounds, Alex is hardly imposing.

"He's scared. He's a young kid. He's 16 looking like he's 12. This is all still new to him," defense attorney Patrick Thomassey said after Alex's arraignment Wednesday night.

Changes in Pennsylvania's Juvenile Act have made it easier for officials to house teenagers like Alex in juvenile detention instead of an adult facility.

Prior to February 2010, the Juvenile Act called on the state to hold a juvenile in an adult jail pretrial if charged with murder, certain other violent crimes if a deadly weapon was used and repeat violent crimes. Those offenses are called "direct file crimes" because the prosecutor can take them immediately to adult court.

Then came the case of Jordan Brown, who at age 11 was accused of shooting his father's pregnant fiancee and initially charged as an adult. His case was later transferred to juvenile court, where he was found responsible for the shooting, but the matter is now subject to appeals that could result in a new trial.

Authorities opted not to put Jordan Brown into an adult jail, prompting a rethinking of the Juvenile Act.

Since the passage of the amendments, if the young defendant is still potentially eligible to have his or her case transferred from adult to juvenile court, the act allows the prosecutor and judge to have the youth housed in "a secure detention facility approved by the Department of Public Welfare" for delinquent children.

If, however, the young defendant stops seeking the transfer of the case to juvenile court, or transfer is denied, then "the court shall order the immediate transfer of the child to the county jail."

Mr. Thomassey has said he intends to try to have Alex's case moved from adult court to juvenile court, although that will be a lengthy process. He also said he intends to have a psychiatrist evaluate Alex to determine whether he will be competent for trial.

"It's rare that a direct file case ends up being held in the juvenile detention center," said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission. "Typically, it would be older kids that would end up being charged with the direct file crimes," and the default decision would be to put them into jails.

"In Westmoreland County's case, here you have a facility that is equipped to handle 15-, 16-, 17-year-old juveniles," said Mr. Anderson. "If the DA agreed to that, I think everybody in Westmoreland County, it would appear, came to the conclusion that this was the best fit for everyone concerned."

Two years ago, it would have been unusual to hold someone in Alex Hribal's position in a juvenile facility, said Wayne Bear, executive director of the Juvenile Detention Centers Association of Pennsylvania.

Counties have learned, though, that it is challenging to hold juveniles in adult jails, particularly because the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act demands separate housing and special protections for them.

"We're seeing more and more counties legally taking the option to house their direct file youth in juvenile detention," said Mr. Bear.

He said that the state's juvenile detention facilities report to him monthly the number of "bed days" logged for juveniles facing adult charges. In January 2012, such youths accounted for just 31 bed days in the state's juvenile facilities. During two months since that time -- December 2012 and April 2013 -- juveniles facing adult charges accounted for 210 bed days statewide, the equivalent of seven such youths spending the entire month. In January of this year, however, the facilities reported just 56 bed days.

"I expect to see that number increase more and more," Mr. Bear said.

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.

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